Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bathroom Monologue: Why Vampires Suck

I originally wrote this for the Fantasy Magazine blog that asked why we loved or hated vampires. It's way too damned long to be a comment, though I did post it over there anyway.

I can’t stand vampires anymore. The children’s expurgated version of Dracula was one of the first novels I read in elementary school, those glow-in-the-dark plastic teeth were the coolest thing in the world in 3rd grade, and I watched Blade an embarrassing number of times in high school. But there came a time when that fiction became dominated by too much trash and pseudoscience for the monsters to be scary or intriguing anymore. I’m afraid they’re reaching the point werewolves and mummies did before them. Their time may be up.

All that is wrong with the modern vampire is not any one element or author’s fault. However, many of the modern vampire’s problems arose from secular influences. There is a pathetic strain running through Horror that sees them tearing through walls, surviving bullets to the head and lifting cars as realistic, but being afraid of crosses as not. I’m not Christian but I could see what very ham-handed writers were trying to do to the Fantasy. They wanted to remove what they didn’t believe from the mythos, but unwittingly insulted the entirely implausible fiction. Suddenly magic was yanked out and there was no cool shapeshifting, no good explanation for the fear of the sun, and the psychic “familiar” phenomenon turned into psychic pseudoscience (when it was explained at all). The clever variations on vampire tropes – like why or how stakes were supposed to work – were dwarfed by a general half-hearted apology for it being fiction, and fiction that apologizes for itself insults both the story and the audience. What the secularization of the vampire did, mostly by accident, was sever the Fantasy creature’s connection to the world. It was like taking night and the moon away from the werewolf. Satan’s overplayed in fiction, but vampires need some mysticism. That they once were one with the night gave them a mythological power they lack altogether today.

In place of magic, now vampirism is a disease – presumably because we’re terrified of STD’s instead of witches these days. But the result is something downright insulting to the ill. I suffer from a neuromuscular syndrome and have mentored a couple of chronically ill girls. Disease does not make you immune to bullets or render you capable of biting through body armor. Reducing vampirism to infectious superpowers is ridiculous, made worse when so many don trendy clothes and black trench coats. They’re the vapid Matrix posers of Fantasy.

The modern zombie does a much better job of expressing the mental and physical degradation of disease, and their far broader potential for infection allegories and apocalypse stories has helped them completely overtake the popularity of their undead brethren. Zombies, popularized in film during the nuclear age, have beaten vampires to the punch. It’s not even a contest. Even in prose, Max Brooks’s World War Z blows away every piece of vampire fiction of the decade on narrative and literary levels.

Then there’s what vampires have actually done in their new pseudoscience domain.

Since Carmilla’s lesbianism and Dracula’s creepy harem, vampires have always had sexual themes. Some directors used those to probe rape and homosexuality when the political climate was less tolerant in visual arts. But Post-Anne Rice, vampires are insipidly horny. Twilight’s teen angst romance and True Blood’s constant banging do little to remedy this. Not to insult the author of a recent blog entry around here, but neither Twilight’s hesitance towards pre-marital sex nor True Blood’s fascination with as much pre-marital sex as possible is interesting. Not with vampires. Not without them. Contrary to popular belief, sex is not mature – kids have sex all the time, and most sexual vampire fiction shows a distinctly adolescent fascination with rutting. That’s certainly part of why I detached from it. I remember when I first turned against the idea of the vampire – reading Rice’s The Vampire Armand, with a slave begging his master not to whip his thighs as he was “disciplined.” Vampire sexuality rapidly descended into the prurient and titillating, which is to say, it became trite. That’s the coffin where vampire sex has laid to rest.

I miss the coffins. Damn, do I miss the coffins. They could be hokey, but at least hokey is the attempt to feel authentic. Somebody who sleeps in a coffin is way more interesting than someone who sleeps on satin sheets, even if a supermodel joins him. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was the last truly great piece of vampire fiction I can remember, giving us a town too full of its own trivial drama to realize the layers of evil unfolding around them. King wanted modernize the vampires he loved so much, and so while he had them handling land deeds and swarming in a school bus, he kept the stake, the cross, the coffin, the transformations and familiars. He maintained the regal air of the father vampire while sowing the notion of the local, lesser child, and in doing so maintained the dread of infection and the bravery of the hunt. He also had broader vision than most Horror writers, also including a creepy abstract version of the classic haunted house to play influence over his classic critters.

For vampire fiction to live it had to outgrow the Dracula model King used, but it didn’t grow into anything compelling to a mind that grew up with it. Buffy and her quirky crew lived on their rapport. Fans watched for the characters, not their challenges, and “Vampire Slayer” quickly became an inaccurate title as they wound up stabbing Frankenstein-rip-offs, giant snakes and demons. Hence why they started just calling her “The Slayer” instead. The current Supernatural is much more entertaining to me, in no small thanks to its openness about a wider variety of baddies going bump in their nights. Those shows are carried by the cast and the characters they make. The Fantasy is a backdrop, and it can be a pretty shallow one.

Where it wasn’t founded on ensembles, popular vampire fiction mutated into exaggerations of old tropes. How many movies have riffed off the classic black and white Nosferatu and Dracula? Anne Rice exaggerated the sexual element to titillate readers. True Blood is now telling a white trash town drama story, plus things that bite and the people who hate them. The 30 Days of Night comics are just Salem’s Lot again, turned much bloodier (and in the film they might as well be werewolves). Marvel Comics dusted off Blade to make an action hero out of the Van Helsing model. Unsurprisingly, Van Helsing himself exploded as an archetype, and then an actual character, including a film bearing the name (and bearing no resemblance to Stoker’s good doctor).

The last vampire story to make me give a damn was the anime, Hellsing. It kills me as a writer and voracious reader that it was a cartoon I liked instead of a book. But the Japanese took the tropes of shapeshifting, night, the bite, the familiar, the dungeons and the legacy of Stoker, and built something visually cool and disturbing. Their Alucard had distinct style in the way he dressed, the way he moved, and the way he dealt with the modern vampire punks (inadvertently punishing many of the crappy stereotypes of modern vampire fiction). Along the way he got a busty, blonde sidekick who somehow managed to go the whole series without getting bent over HBO style.

Yesterday I got my haircut by a young woman who was reading Stephanie Meyer’s Eclipse. I asked her to tell me about the series – just to listen to somebody who genuinely enjoyed reading. Meyer is not for me. Sentence-by-sentence she simply can’t hold me, sparkly vampires are too silly, and at 27, I may be too old for Romeo and Juliet with fangs. Even my friends who enjoy younger-targeted fiction feel they’re too old for this. ‘Vampire sparkles’ are a joke amongst us. But I was happy for the haircutter, because she was excited to read something, and that will always be a gift, no matter how trashy the writer (and there are worse than Meyer). The funny thing, and sad thing, is that in ten minutes she didn’t describe any character, plot or variation on vampires. For ten minutes she only had variations of “It’s good,” and that she hoped there would be a fifth book. Speaking the allure of vampires, she was equally enthused to read The Host, which she described as being about robots who take over the world.

That’s where I am as a lover of the creepy and the fantastic. If, in our world of remakes, somebody could do something cool with the vampire without insulting its legacy, I’d be game. Since Salem’s Lot it seems like my favorite vampire stories have all been riffs – Shadow of the Vampire being a movie about making a vampire movie, and Christopher Moore and other authors straight-up mocking the lore in print. Those were fun, but they walked no new paths. There is no prose equivalent of Hellsing. Even I’ve written a couple of short stories in attempts at novelty in the neck-biters. I’d like to like them again. I’d love for an author to give me a good reason.


  1. Yes. Yes. Indeed yes. I try not to sigh when patrons come in asking if we have any vampire books. Yes, we do. Lots and lots of them, and they are mostly crap.

  2. i'm happy to say that i have avoided the hell out of Twilight. i'm with you, man. sparkly vampires are no longer for me.

  3. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman has some similar things to say about vampires in contemporary fiction: article

  4. Neil Gaiman totally ripped me off.

    Or everybody is fed up with crappy vampire stuff right now.

    One or the other.

  5. Not sure if you've heard of it but there was a Swedish vampire movie last year called "Let the Right One In" that I thought was absolutely fantastic compared to the "Glam-pires" and other pretentious silliness. I really don't want to spoil the movie but the IMDB link is below if you need more convincing. You can watch it over Netflix's Watch Instant service but you might need to hurry. Hollyword is "American-izing" a remake right now.

  6. Hey Matt! I have actually seen Let the Right One In and agree it is a great achievement. I've done a new draft of this essay for submission to New Myths. It looks quite different now, including a two-paragraph entry on the film. If it sells I'll post a link on here as well as Twitter.


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